Wednesday 18 January 2017

Little black diamond! 90 years of the go-to dress

It's the wardrobe staple - and saviour - that no woman could be without. From Coco Chanel's original to Hervé Léger's bandage dress, Sophie Donaldson charts 90 years of the LBD

Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30

Holly Golightly's black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's, worn by Audrey Hepburn and designed by Hubert de Givenchy
Holly Golightly's black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's, worn by Audrey Hepburn and designed by Hubert de Givenchy
Princess Diana arrives at the 1994 Serpentine Gallery summer party in a Christina Stambolian frock
The Sex and the City ladies brought the LBD to the fore in the 1990s
Ava Gardner wears Vera West's design in The Killers
Embellished dress, POA, Jill De Búrca,
Lace top dress, €390, Self Portrait, Brown Thomas
Sweater dress, €29.95, Zara
High-necked dress, €140, Miss Selfridge
Velvet dress, €10, Penneys

It's Friday night, 8pm. Maybe you've got cocktails with the girls, or perhaps you're heading off for a date. Either way, you're late. You rip off your work clothes and lurch about the room desperately trying to comb your hair, reapply mascara and find that other shoe as you eye the half open wardrobe. What to wear? Rifling through the rail with slightly manic intensity finally you see it. Your Little Black Dress. Perfect. Earrings are added, a necklace considered then discarded. The second shoe is found and you are out the door in under five minutes - and feeling rather chic.

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How is it that a single garment in a single shade, has the power to constantly reinvent itself? Or rather, what is so alluring about it that we continue to reinvent it? We add shoulder pads and slash hemlines, add a frilled collar then opt for spaghetti straps. It's velvet, then chiffon, then paisley and cotton. A myriad of styles and textures have evolved over the years but the fundamentals of the little black dress make it just as modern as it when it emerged from a Parisian salon 90 years ago.

All hail the unrivalled power of the LBD. Before you take a moment to thank the heavens for all the times it has been your sartorial saviour, consider that it is in fact a diminutive French Mademoiselle we should all be saluting. Of course, Coco Chanel did not invent the concept of black fabric fashioned into a frock. What she did, however, was introduce 20th century society to the concept of a wardrobe staple, a fashion uniform if you will, where it has remained firmly entrenched ever since.

Chanel's little black dress first appeared as a sketch in Vogue magazine in 1926. The editors declared it her first Ford dress, named the Model T, after the car manufacturer's reliable vehicle. A simple column sheath dress in black crêpe de Chine was deemed by Vogue as what would "become sort of a uniform for all women of taste". After nearly a century's worth of reinterpretation we see just how right they were.

Princess Diana arrives at the 1994 Serpentine Gallery summer party in a Christina Stambolian frock
Princess Diana arrives at the 1994 Serpentine Gallery summer party in a Christina Stambolian frock

Whilst the silhouette of the little black dress is constantly in flux, its colour is not. Noir, ebony, midnight or ink, whatever you call it, black will always be the new black.

Hollywood's Golden Age was rife with the LBD. In 1946, The Killers shot a young Ava Gardner to fame. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it was largely due to the film's costumes that it had such visual appeal. Designed by Vera West, then head of costume at Universal and known for her 'horror couture' for her work on films like Frankenstein and Dracula, the smouldering black gown she made for Gardner continues to influence designers. A single strap plunges into the centre of the sweetheart neckline and coils around Gardner's elegant neck as she drapes herself across a table in one of the most memorable photographs of the Hollywood actress.

Similarly, 1960's Butterfield 8 has a plethora of enduring costume moments, including the opening shot of a dress flung on the floor and all but destroyed after a lusty night of passion. Elizabeth Taylor played the lead and wore a black chiffon gown that was dubbed "the Butterfield 8 dress" and spawned a thousand copies, designed by costumier Helen Rose.

The following year introduced the world to what is perhaps the most iconic LBD in Hollywood history; Holly Golightly's black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's, worn by Audrey Hepburn and designed by Hubert de Givenchy. He initially designed her costumes for 1954's Sabrina and went on to create costumes for seven more films, including the little black number she wore in 1963's Charade which can be seen at Newbridge Silverware's Museum of Style Icons in Kildare (although, strictly speaking, it is a two-piece). The dress created for Ms Golightly is undoubtedly their most memorable collaboration and it was sold at auction in 2006 for a whopping €519, 000.

The same year Hepburn starred in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Jackie Kennedy was photographed by the iconic Richard Avedon in her own version of the LBD. Mrs Kennedy was the image of domestic tranquillity as she posed with her husband John, their daughter Caroline and three-month-old John Junior for portraits used in Harper's Bazaar and Look magazines. Jackie wore several dresses for the sitting by official Whitehouse designer Oleg Cassini. When posing alone with her husband, Jackie wore the dress that may have been the simplest in design but magnified her dark features and pale complexion. It was understated and elegant, much like the woman herself.

A world away from the Kennedy's Florida beach home, the red carpet at the 1985 American Music Awards was trod by superstars like Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper. Alongside these icons sidled up a relative newcomer who would go on the receive the evening's award for favourite female artist - Madonna.

The Sex and the City ladies brought the LBD to the fore in the 1990s
The Sex and the City ladies brought the LBD to the fore in the 1990s

Like Hepburn and Givenchy, Madonna's collaboration with French designer Jean Paul Gaultier produced some of the most extraordinary ensembles in entertainment history. The black Gaultier gown she wore that evening had a built-in corset that was fitted like cling film to the starlet's bust, her neck draped in rosary beads and crucifixes. The ensemble personified the provocative, Gothic aesthetic that Gaultier created for her and remains just as iconic as that cone bra. Fashion in the late 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by a small group of other-worldly women: Naomi, Christy, Linda, Cindy and Claudia. The Supers leapt from fashion capital to fashion capital with a modelling monopoly that saw them walk and pose for every relevant publication and designer of the era. The concurrent rise of backstage and paparazzi photography meant the Supers' personal wardrobes were just as photographed as what they wore on the catwalk, and the LBD featured heavily. There was Linda posing for Helmut Newton with a cigarette in her mouth and teeny, tiny little black dress. Then Christy in 1992 channelling Audrey with her pearl choker and black column dress. A late recruit to the posse, Kate Moss is an ardent fan of the LBD. A staple of her wardrobe in the 1990s, she favoured the simple slip dress.

In the 1990s, these members of fashion royalty were just as idolised as an actual royal - Diana. One of the most photographed women in the world before her untimely death in 1997, Princess Diana was known as much for her style as she was for her status.

Her wedding dress with a jaw-dropping 25ft train was arguably her most spectacular dress, rivalled only by the little black dress she donned in 1994 that went on to earn its own moniker. "Revenge Dressing", as it is now known, was born of Diana's frock by Greek designer Christina Stambolian. Arriving at the Serpentine Gallery summer party on the same day her husband Prince Charles publicly conceded adultery, Diana had obviously chosen one of two paths; to stay at home, curtains drawn, or to step out into the world wearing something so utterly beguiling, so sexy and beautifully calculated that it was the sartorial equivalent of brushing a piece of dust off one's very fabulous lapel.

In that same year another little black dress was given its own name. Dubbed "THAT dress", it was worn by actress Liz Hurley as she attended the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral with her then-beau Hugh Grant. Designed by Versace it was typical of the sexually-amplified aesthetic of the house: tight and black with a plunging V neckline, it was slashed down the bodice from the top of the hip just beneath the bust, the open fabric held together with glinting gold safety pins. It also had a thigh-high split, just for good measure. Sensational at the time, it was worn again in 2012 by singer Lady Gaga, but in the age of Miley Cyrus' nipples and Gaga's own meat dress it hardly earned a double take.

Poster girls of 1990s pop music, the Spice Girls' now iconic outfits were suitably fitting for each Girl's outward persona. Now a fashion maven in her own right, Victoria Beckham exuded a well-posh personality, so much so that her signature little black dress was assumed to be Gucci. Years later she did in fact make the admission that whilst it might have looked couture, the frock was in fact from Miss Selfridge. High street or high fashion, nevertheless the dress remains one of the most memorable LDBs in music.

In 1994 we saw the launch of a dress that prevailed throughout the early noughties, a favourite of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. It was Hervé Léger's bandage dress, a form-fitting frock that encases the body in strips of sturdy elasticised fabric. The type of dress to showcase every lump and bump, it is not for the faint-hearted, but it was famously worn by Cindy Crawford to a Vogue anniversary party in 1998. She opted for a bandage dress in all-black and paired it with long black gloves trimmed in marabou feathers. The LBD had once again been reinvented in a figure-hugging style for a new era.

In the late 1990s we became acquainted with a group of women who not only redefined what we wore but what we did without our clothes on. Sex and the City was the gateway to female sexual empowerment, those uncertain waters navigated by Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte in all manner of fabulous outfits. From Carrie's black lace slip she wore on Big's last day in New York, to Charlotte's black taffeta bridesmaid dress, costume designer Patricia Field's body of work shows just how indispensable the little black dress is to the modern woman's wardrobe.

It's been more than decade since the fabulous four showcased the myriad ways of styling an LBD. In the years since it remains a favourite of high-profile women and designers everywhere. Most recently Anthony Vaccarello, a 34-year-old Italian-Belgian designer who is now creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, once again made the LBD the must-have frock with his provocative leather mini dresses.

It's been a heady 90 years of the little black dress. It has permeated every aspect of modern popular culture and become a stalwart of our everyday wardrobe. So how much do we love the little black dress? Oh, let us count the ways...

LBD 2016

The styles to be seen in this winter


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Velvet dress, €10, Penneys

Velvet is this season’s fabric of choice. This tactile textile is covering everything from dapper tailored suits to soft  clutches, with a plethora of velvet party dresses around. A staple of the 1980s party scene, a velvet mini dress is sumptuous and sexy in equal measure (but do avoid those 1980s shoulder pads!).


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High-necked dress, €140, Miss Selfridge

It’s rather fitting the high street has taken inspiration from Victorian dress for this season’s LBDs. It was of course the era that defined ‘mourning dress’, with Queen Victoria’s black garb becoming de rigeur for the masses. Look out for high necks, ruffles, frilled cuffs, intricate lace and form-fitting bodices.


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Floral slip dress, €54, Marks & Spencer

Another decade-specific throwback, this time the 1990s are being revisited with the triumphant return of the slip dress. Minimalist chic with come-hither boudoir appeal, the slip dress is best worn unadorned. Pair with strappy heels and small stud earrings for maximum minimalist effect.


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Embellished dress, POA, Jill De Búrca,

Party season dressing is synonymous with the sequin, but there is a new type of embellishment cropping up on LDBs this season. Studs, brass eyelets and Perspex are just some of the new ways designers are adorning their clothes. Check out Irish designer Jill De Búrca for simply divine embroidery and beadwork.



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Lace top dress, €390, Self Portrait, Brown Thomas

It’s near impossible to look at a red carpet, cocktail party or wedding reception without spotting a Self Portrait dress. Just three years old, the label’s ubiquitous lacework has drawn hordes of fans, from fashion editors to the everyday woman for its luxe quality at reasonable prices. Other brands have taken their cue from Self Portrait and the LBLD (little black lace dress) is everywhere.



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Sweater dress, €29.95, Zara

If lacy frocks aren’t your bag, the sports chic look is still prevailing for a more pared-back take on the LBD. Look out for slick exposed zips, racing stripes, snap studs (a la Adidas’ iconic snap pants) and sports-chic fabrics like mesh and neoprene. Cos and Zara are both channelling the trend with their sporty little LBDs this season. Pair with a satin bomber for a thoroughly athletic aesthetic.

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